BLOCK GRANTS are fast approaching centerstage. The reason for the sudden interest in them is that, with fewer dollars in the pot, everyone is concerned about the control of those dollars, preferring that it be in their hands to ensure that greed doesn't get the better of the other fellow. The block grants proposal would consolidate 97 individual programs into seven large packages of federal aid. In those packages would come most of the money for federal aid to education, health, social services and community with this scheme because the average, isolated, federal aid program getting pulled into a block grant will be cut by about 25 percent. But mayors and governors are not -- for the moment -- arguing so much about that cut as they are arguing with each other for the right to control the remaining money.
The mayors especially are in a fighting mood because the proposal, as it is now constructed, has the governors, as the heads of their states, receiving all federal funds. The money would then be channeled to cities and counties in amounts and for purposes largely determined by the governors. The reaction to this plan in city halls has not been polite. The mayors have made pointed remarks about the history of allowing states to carry out federal mandates, noting that in the past state's rights meant, among other things, resistence to desegregation and inattention to the special needs of urban areas.
The govenors' position has been seriously weakened by the fact that Congress has already bought the budget cuts -- at least as far as the first budget resolution it adopted is controlling -- while it has shown a marked lack of interest in the block grant approach. Congress has yet to report even one major block grant bill out of committee.
There are good reasons for Congress' hesitation. To justify any federal contribution to programs for education, health, community development and the like, there must be assurance that the money is used for well-specified national purposes, that it is spent on those people and in those areas that need it most, and that the federal money does not simply substitute for state and local funds that would otherwise be used for the same purpose. Without these minimum requirements and some reasonable hope of their enforcement, it would be better to add the money to general revenue sharing or not spend it at all.
On the other hand, there are clearly too many special-purpose federal programs with too many harassing restrictions to allow sensible planning at either the state or local level.Cutting federal aid by one-fourth while leaving all these requirements in place would impose a monstrous burden on both state and local governments and, ultimately, on the citizens they are intended to help. However reluctant Congress is to abandon direct control over its pet projects and special clienteles, it should act promptly to streamline federal grant-in-aid programs while preserving those basic features that are essential to their purposes.